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How do you define compassion? In the tight-knit medical marijuana community, the word has become a euphemism for small, periodic donations of cannabis-based medicine to patients who cannot afford to buy it at the going rate — now about $10 to $25 a gram.
The tradition began in the mid-1980s, when a lack of adequate care and harsh nature of the drugs for AIDS patients led to the development of a patient-centered approach to medicinal uses of marijuana, said Wayne Justmann, a long-time medical marijuana advocate.
One of the leaders in cannabis-based charity work is a dispensary, HopeNet. Besides providing free marijuana, referred to as “compassion,” to about 100 residents of South of Market, on average, about a gram a week per patient, it supports a full suite of “compassionate” services, all financed through the sale of medical cannabis to its regular stable of paying patients. In the past, the dispensary has also bought its patients wheelchairs, provided companion dogs and paid for cremations.
Of about 800 patients, every year HopeNet stops hearing from 15 or 20, who are presumed to have died, said Cathy Smith, who runs HopeNet with her husband, Steve.
Vince Turner, a Vietnam veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, refers to the couple as “mom” and “dad.” “She’s a woman of my own age and I love her like my mother,” Turner said. “I consider Steve and Cathy and HopeNet my true family. While I have blood relatives, if they cared for me, they wouldn’t have allowed me to be on the streets.”
HopeNet works with a patient-advocacy group called Axis of Love that runs a community center in SoMa. HopeNet brings in so much cash from its regular business that it can donate $5,000 a month to Axis of Love, which provides daily meals, palliative care and support groups to AIDS patients, veterans and the terminally ill, and others.
For many patients, the center provides an important social support that would be otherwise missing from their lives.
“Coming here,” said Elise Cleveland, 42, a patient since 2007 who was once a crack user and struggles with a chronic illness, “you don’t get stigmatized.”
Monica Jensen, the multimedia editor at SF Public Press, is also a volunteer at the “Crosscurrents” news program on KALW Public Radio. She has been documenting a collective art project titled “Welcome to the NeighborHood” in Bayview-Hunters Point. The project has been exhibited in the Sargent Johnson Gallery in the African American Arts and Culture Complex, and will be displayed at Zeum and Art 94124. Jensen is also the winner of an honorable mention from the National Press Photographers Association Best of Photojournalism award.
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